EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus talks during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquaters in Geneva on March 11, 2020. - WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on March 11, 2020 that the new coronavirus outbreak can now be characterised as a pandemic. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said the word 'pandemic' was not to be used lightly © Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

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The World Health Organization has labelled the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic as the number of cases surged to some 118,000 in 114 countries, with 4,291 deaths.

The change of terminology from epidemic to “pandemic” followed detailed consultations about the spread of Covid-19 with health experts inside and outside the WHO, said Michael Ryan, executive director in charge of health emergencies, on Wednesday. “We balanced the benefit of galvanising the world to fight the virus against the danger that it would lead to countries giving up,” he added.

A pandemic means a disease is spreading rapidly in several different parts of the world.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, told a teleconference in Geneva: “WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.”

The impact of the announcement is expected to be largely psychological. “Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this coronavirus,” Dr Tedros said. “It doesn’t change what WHO is doing and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

But independent experts expect it to have a significant effect. “The characterisation of the situation as a pandemic may mean that we see countries feel incentivised to implement further larger interventions, such as banning of public gatherings, sooner than they were otherwise planning to,” said Michael Head, a global health researcher at the University of Southampton.

“In the past two weeks, the number of cases of Covid-19 outside China has increased 13-fold and the number of affected countries has tripled,” said Dr Tedros. “There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives. Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals.

“In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of Covid-19 cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” he warned.

Dr Ryan noted the Italian health service was under severe pressure, with nearly 900 Covid-19 patients in intensive care. “Italy and Iran are suffering now but I guarantee that other countries will be in that position soon,” he said.

Dr Ryan declined to say which countries were not doing enough to fight the pandemic. “We don’t criticise member states in public. We try to work with them, telling them how they can improve — and they tell us how we can improve,” he said.

But he listed several areas in which governments were falling short, including maintaining excessively rigorous diagnostic criteria so that too few people were tested for infection; failing to protect frontline health workers; prematurely giving up tracing contacts of known Covid-19 cases; poor communication with the public; and lack of co-ordination between national authorities and states, provinces and local authorities.

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